The problem with friendship in Hoccleve's poetry is that friendship is not about who
one is but about what one does. Who is a friend in Hoccleve's poetry? Well, he is the
guy knocking and hollering at the door, coming to check on you because he has not
seen you in a while. What's his name? Friend. Oh, ok. That's a friend. What about
the guy from whom you are petitioning money? Is he a friend? If the petition is
successful, then maybe. If not, Hoccleve erases the name from the address, fills in a
new one, and sends it off to another would-be-friend. Friendship in Hoccleve is not
about who one is; it is about what one does.
Whether communynge is unsuccessful – as in the misspent youth motif; unfinished –
as in the Regiment of Princes; recursive – as in the Friend’s interruptions throughout
the Series; or merely hoped for – as in the minor verses, Hoccleve…something…
Whereas the Dialogue suggests that friendship, however problematic or unreliable,
is ultimately necessary, Learn to Die insists that friendships are unnecessary
distractions at best and potentially disastrous.
Their authority is established, rather, through the give-and-take exchanges within
the dialogue and is not predicated on some form of domination over the Hoccleve
|My mind's a mess and so is my desk.|
While the dialogue thrived as an important literary form in an array of medieval
genres, Thomas Hoccleve’s poetics demonstrate the adaptability of dialogue as a
genre distinct from the traditions of debate, consolatio, and dit. For Hoccleve, the
dialogue was a close cousin to the emerging forms of complaint and petition and,
like these latter two genres, permitted the poet to occupy multiple and mobile
Is "friend" an ontological category in the middle ages? What are the forms and
figures of medieval friendship?
In fact, friendship seems to be everywhere in Hoccleve’s vernacular poetics:
friends often attempt to intercede in Hoccleve’s misspent youth, which he recounts
frequently; his minor petitionary poems often voice the complaints of his felawes
at the Privy Seal; friends – including the eponymous Friend of the Dialogue – fill
the poems of the Series; and Hoccleve’s other works constantly call forth figures
of mediation, intercession, and communynge that are rarely named as friends but
are clearly meant to evoke something like friendship.
Smith’s prevailing opinion was that Hoccleve “could never have dreamt himself
out of a respectable mediocrity” while Furnivall concluded, “We wish he had been
a better poet and a manlier fellow; but all of those who’ve made fools of
themselves, more or less, in their youth, will feel for the poor old versifier.” This
reception persists in some more recent treatments. Malcolm Richardson concludes,
“As a professional bureaucrat, Hoccleve was exactly what he tells us he was, a
bungler, misfit, and perpetual also-ran.”
What would happiness, pleasure, joy, well-being, or satisfaction look like in
Hoccleve's poetics? Aside from the brief recollections of having enjoyed himself
during his misspent youth and the even briefer moments of penitential introspection
that seem to offer him some form of solace, Hoccleve's poetry is not prone to
moments of laughter, frivolity, enjoyment, happiness, or bliss. Even his recovery
seems to plague and torment him. And the visitation of Friend does little to assuage
his anxieties about who is reading him and how.
With the emergence of Affect Studies along with the recent critiques of happiness,
failure, and optimism in the field of queer theory, there seems to be no better time to
re-assess the medieval poetics of Thomas Hoccleve: a poet whose inability to take
up the literary mantle vacated by Chaucer has long been one of the great signs of his
failure and a predominant cause for the relative sterility of his verse when compared
to the prodigious production and massive success of his contemporary, John Lydgate.
Who or what is a friend in Hoccleve?
There are certainly more, but the hallway has grown quiet and my coffee mug is empty. I would say by way of concluding, though, that one of the most difficult tasks of working on this project for so long (aside from actually writing, finding the time to write, and writing) has been knowing when and how to let go of previous drafts, previous sentences, or previous sketches of a thought. There is a part of me that wants desperately to preserve everything I have written on Hoccleve and make room for it in this draft. But everything does not fit. This work is not - in many important ways - about Hoccleve, about his poetics, or about his relation to the careers of Chaucer and Lydgate, on the one hand, or John Prophete and Robert Frye, on the other. My subject is friendship; it always has been. I have struggled for so long to learn about Hoccleve that I nearly forgot I was supposed to be addressing myself to friends historical, present, and to come.